Illustration by Baraa Al Jorf.

A Tale of Two Cities: Rethinking Development between Abu Dhabi and Amman

Development is not all about tall skyscrapers and an abundance of capital and luxury, especially when it comes at the price of losing touch with where you live.

Apr 10, 2021

One of the many interesting things about moving from one city to another is our tendency to view the newer one through the lens of the older one. Whenever I go out to the city here in Abu Dhabi, I feel myself transforming into a walking Venn Diagram, pointing out all the similarities and differences between Abu Dhabi and Amman, the city where I grew up. While Amman is not the eclectic mix of cultures, glossy skyscrapers, Spanish villas and smoothly paved roads that Abu Dhabi is, it is a place that I have gotten to know over the years and a place that I gradually learned to call home.
But Amman is not what you would call developed in the Western, “First World-Third World” sense of the word. Its modernity is juxtaposed with its old brick houses built on mountainous terrains in an almost chaotic way that, in a perplexing manner, actually makes sense. A 30-minute walk up and down its streets is ample cardio exercise and a good way to immerse yourself in the everyday hustle of its hard working — and often struggling — people.
Jabal Amman. Photo Courtesy of Aya Abu Ali.
Amman is a city as hospitable as its people, a place that engulfs you as you walk in it, but not a place where change takes place as often as is needed. It has a dark side that is riddled with social, political and economic issues that weigh down on it. If you randomly ask a person on the street if they would move elsewhere given the chance, more often than not, you would get a positive answer. For similar reasons, Jordan is considered a developing country. It does not do all that well when it comes to important economic and social indicators: GDP, Unemployment, Global Innovation Index, etc.
When people think of Abu Dhabi — that is, after they get over the fact that Abu Dhabi is not Dubai — they often think of high-rise buildings, luxurious lifestyles and a vast world of opportunities. This often overwhelming aura of extravagance and fast-paced growth is something I felt from my very first days as a new resident of Abu Dhabi. Over the decades, Abu Dhabi, and the UAE in general, has emerged as a competitive, investment-worthy destination in many different markets. One could say that Abu Dhabi is doing well in terms of development and economic growth. “Its numbers are looking good,” a financial analyst would say. But isn’t there more to development than just numbers?
As Abu Dhabi continues to expand vertically and horizontally around me, questions of what it is that decides a city’s place on the spectrum between “developed” and “developing” occupy my thoughts. The new apartment buildings that seem to rise overnight and the general preoccupation with constructing the biggest or tallest structures in the world are perhaps two schemes out of a smorgasbord of detailed plans designed to turn Abu Dhabi into a must-see tourist destination and an attractive spot for international youth.
Compared to Amman, Abu Dhabi has far more entertainment options; its ever-expanding list of malls, restaurants, resorts and even theme parks and natural parks come close to satisfying the insatiable consumer appetite of a typical 21st century college student living in a capitalist world. However, sometimes the development and economic growth scheme comes at the cost of preserving the heritage and identity of a city, both of which affect the relationship between the city and its inhabitants.
In Abu Dhabi, I often feel like a Sim walking around in SimCity, a bustling metropolis trying to compete with the other players’ fast-growing cities. In the actual video game, the cities deemed most successful are the ones that have built Miami-style skyscrapers overlooking a wide stretch of water. As a player, you have the option to build whatever structure you want as long as you have the “money” to finance it. And while I don’t think any player’s Sims ever got lost in their city (mostly because they weren’t programmed to), there have been instances when I couldn’t tell the difference between one part of Abu Dhabi and another because almost everywhere, the ever-stretching highways take you to destinations with strikingly similar towering buildings and lots and lots of intersections.
I understand the need to keep up with the world’s advancements in technology and urban planning, but in certain cases development trumps the intimacy of the city that is often needed to help its residents feel at home. On a walk back from Mamsha Al Saadiyat to campus, I had difficulty finding a sidewalk for most of the trip. My friends and I had to walk on what would have been a great candidate for a sidewalk, but was instead filled with stones that made for a very uncomfortable footpath. I am no expert on urban planning so I do not know if a plan exists to turn the stone-covered road into a sidewalk, but the idea that we spend an overwhelming portion of our time in Abu Dhabi inside a vehicle because walking isn’t exactly an option makes it really hard to get to know the city.
Path from Mamsha Al Saadiyat to campus. Photo Courtesy of Aya Abu Ali.
Amman is a city built on seven hills. It does not exactly have the wide sidewalks you would find in Europe, but walking in between its neighborhoods and its stores, its commercial traffic and imperfect, bumpy roads helps me feel that I understand this city and the struggles of its people. Its topography mirrors the ups and downs of everyday life rather than pushing the aesthetically unpleasant to the periphery.
A street in Jabal Al Lweibdeh, an area in Amman known for its artistic scenes. Photo Courtesy of Aya Abu Ali.
But even Amman is trying to develop. Al-Abdali, one area in Amman, used to be home for many humble families living in the small, brick houses that characterize Amman. Now, Al-Abdali is striving to become the central business district in Amman, its glass towers alien to the architecture surrounding them. While I do confess to enjoying the Boulevard and its many restaurants and shops located in Al-Abdali, I can’t help but wonder if the families who had to move out for this project to take place were happy to do so.
The point of sharing my double-vision of Abu Dhabi is not to romanticize one city and demonize another. In Abu Dhabi, I can appreciate the serenity of the mangroves park and the unspoiled beauty of the sea, things I often lack back home. I enjoy visiting Abu Dhabi’s aesthetic little shops and getting immersed in its eye-opening diversity that is an intellectual challenge to think about all by itself. And yet, I do fear that the stride towards development will tip the balance between growth and the conservation of nature, heritage, identity and intimacy.
As students who are often encouraged to explore learning opportunities outside the classroom, being able to walk and explore the city that we live in is important to be able to connect with this city — complete with its people and their personal stories, not just its must-see tourist attractions. We need to feel that our city speaks to us and cares about us. Perhaps we should start thinking of redefining development, not in a way that assigns rigid, almost condescending labels to countries, but in a way that helps us contextualize development and think about how it looks in different places — in a way that steers away from standardizing our approach to developing our cities and our economies. But most importantly, we should not forget that the cities we are trying to develop, and the economies we are trying to grow are, at the end of the day, spaces inhabited by and designed for humans. Human-centric they must remain.
Aya Abu Ali is a Staff Writer. Email her at
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